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Uber opponents rally on the steps of city

Uber opponents rally on the steps of city hall in Manhattan on Monday, July 20, 2015. Taxi drivers were joined by members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Machinists Union and others in demanding justice for the city taxi drivers and calling for organization. Credit: Charles Eckert

New York City's Uber uproar holds center stage as the big civic brawl of the summer. With its chance of influencing the future of taxi and limo service, a propaganda war heats up the city streets.

Given its loud volume, however, it may be tempting to exaggerate the scope and impact of this commercial clash.

But whichever side you take -- including neither -- here are five basic points worth remembering as the show goes on:

1. This is a business brawl.

Uber is a big, international transportation-network company famous for its cab-summoning phone apps -- not a youth crusade. Naturally, its leaders wish to dominate the local industry by expanding as freely as possible after city officials said in April there were 14,088 registered Uber cars compared with 13,587 yellow cabs. But Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council leaders want to temporarily restrict their expansion, and thus exercise their regulatory power and sustain a medallion taxi industry that among other things helps fund their campaigns.

Take it with a grain of road salt when Uber says stalling its growth would assault freedom, kill jobs and penalize the public. And be just as skeptical when de Blasio blames cars-for-hire for traffic snarls.

2. It only resembles an election campaign.

Robocallers brand your city councilman a sellout if he does not change his ways in Uber's favor. Go to City Hall and rallies are held replete with signs and chants. David Plouffe, a top official at Uber, managed President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Thus the expensive appeal to voters and consumers.

De Blasio, like any "incumbent," rejected an attention-getting request from an Uber executive for a live debate, saying, "I do not debate with heads of private companies over their own self-interest." Ever on the march, de Blasio through staff also coordinated contrary rallies and statements from taxi groups, unions and others whacking "Ubernomics" as destructive.

3. Dispatch technology is not all about Uber.After East Hampton Town officials ran Uber cars off the roads last month for allegedly illegal operations, it was announced that one tech firm would partner with Montauk-based taxi companies to provide Uber-like cellphone applications. As quoted by Newsday's Lisa Irizarry, Mark Ripolone, owner of Ditch Plains Taxi, said after the crackdown, "Everybody is just lost because of this technology addiction."

Meanwhile, in the city, Uber competitors such as Lyft also have opposed de Blasio's cap on expansion, but with a different angle -- by claiming it would actually help Uber lock in its current share of the taxi market.

4. Labor is a driving force.

Uber's business model seemed to get a jolt last month when the California Labor Commission ruled in a class-action suit against the company that one of its drivers was really an employee, not a contractor -- and thus entitled to certain protections. Uber represented itself as a "technological platform" for private vehicle drivers to facilitate private transactions.

Broadly, the fight and its lobbying campaign have echoes of the fights over Airbnb and charter schools.

5. Fact of life, kids: Cabs and buses are locally regulated.The city has a raucous history of transit tensions pushing and pulling against municipal regulation: Private franchise buses versus public buses; commuter vans versus buses and cabs; limo services versus yellow cabs, and the more recent competitive introduction of outer-borough green cabs. The council has acted for decades to protect the medallion industry. This is the latest chapter.


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